In the Prison
NEAR sunset that evening an elderly gentleman was standing with his back against the smaller entrance-door of Stoniton jail, saying a few last words to the departing chaplain. The chaplain walked away, but the elderly gentleman stood still, looking down on the pavement and stroking his chin with a ruminating air, when he was roused by a sweet clear woman's voice, saying, "Can I get into the prison, if you please?"
He turned his head and looked fixedly at the speaker for a few moments without answering.
"I have seen you before," he said at last. "Do you remember preaching on the village green at Hayslope in Loamshire?"
"Yes, sir, surely. Are you the gentleman that stayed to listen on horseback?"
"Yes. Why do you want to go into the prison?"
"I want to go to Hetty Sorrel, the young woman who has been condemned to death — and to stay with her, if I may be permitted. Have you power in the prison, sir?"
"Yes; I am a magistrate, and can get admittance for you. But did you know this criminal, Hetty Sorrel?"
"Yes, we are kin. My own aunt married her uncle, Martin Poyser. But I was away at Leeds, and didn't know of this great trouble in time to get here before to-day. I entreat you, sir, for the love of our heavenly Father, to let me go to her and stay with her."
"How did you know she was condemned to death, if you are only just come from Leeds?"
"I have seen my uncle since the trial, sir. He is gone back to his home now, and the poor sinner is forsaken of all. I beseech you to get leave for me to be with her."
"What! Have you courage to stay all night in the prison? She is very sullen, and will scarcely make answer when she is spoken to."
"Oh, sir, it may please God to open her heart still. Don't let us delay."
"Come, then," said the elderly gentleman, ringing and gaining admission, "I know you have a key to unlock hearts."
Dinah mechanically took off her bonnet and shawl as soon as they were within the prison court, from the habit she had of throwing them off when she preached or prayed, or visited the sick; and when they entered the jailer's room, she laid them down on a chair unthinkingly. There was no agitation visible in her, but a deep concentrated calmness, as if, even when she was speaking, her soul was in prayer reposing on an unseen support.
After speaking to the jailer, the magistrate turned to her and said, "The turnkey will take you to the prisoner's cell and leave you there for the night, if you desire it, but you can't have a light during the night — it is contrary to rules. My name is Colonel Townley: if I can help you in anything, ask the jailer for my address and come to me. I take some interest in this Hetty Sorrel, for the sake of that fine fellow, Adam Bede. I happened to see him at Hayslope the same evening I heard you preach, and recognized him in court to-day, ill as he looked."
"Ah, sir, can you tell me anything about him? Can you tell me where he lodges? For my poor uncle was too much weighed down with trouble to remember."
"Close by here. I inquired all about him of Mr. Irwine. He lodges over a tinman's shop, in the street on the right hand as you entered the prison. There is an old school-master with him. Now, good-bye: I wish you success."
"Farewell, sir. I am grateful to you."
As Dinah crossed the prison court with the turnkey, the solemn evening light seemed to make the walls higher than they were by day, and the sweet pale face in the cap was more than ever like a white flower on this background of gloom. The turnkey looked askance at her all the while, but never spoke. He somehow felt that the sound of his own rude voice would be grating just then. He struck a light as they entered the dark corridor leading to the condemned cell, and then said in his most civil tone, "It'll be pretty nigh dark in the cell a'ready, but I can stop with my light a bit, if you like."
"Nay, friend, thank you," said Dinah. "I wish to go in alone."
"As you like," said the jailer, turning the harsh key in the lock and opening the door wide enough to admit Dinah. A jet of light from his lantern fell on the opposite corner of the cell, where Hetty was sitting on her straw pallet with her face buried in her knees. It seemed as if she were asleep, and yet the grating of the lock would have been likely to waken her.
The door closed again, and the only light in the cell was that of the evening sky, through the small high grating — enough to discern human faces by. Dinah stood still for a minute, hesitating to speak because Hetty might be asleep, and looking at the motionless heap with a yearning heart. Then she said, softly, "Hetty!"
There was a slight movement perceptible in Hetty's frame — a start such as might have been produced by a feeble electrical shock — but she did not look up. Dinah spoke again, in a tone made stronger by irrepressible emotion, "Hetty . . . it's Dinah."
Again there was a slight startled movement through Hetty's frame, and without uncovering her face, she raised her head a little, as if listening.
"Hetty . . . Dinah is come to you."
After a moment's pause, Hetty lifted her head slowly and timidly from her knees and raised her eyes. The two pale faces were looking at each other: one with a wild hard despair in it, the other full of sad yearning love. Dinah unconsciously opened her arms and stretched them out.
"Don't you know me, Hetty? Don't you remember Dinah? Did you think I wouldn't come to you in trouble?"
Hetty kept her eyes fixed on Dinah's face — at first like an animal that gazes, and gazes, and keeps aloof.
"I'm come to be with you, Hetty — not to leave you — to stay with you — to be your sister to the last."
Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah's arms.
They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again. Hetty, without any distinct thought of it, hung on this something that was come to clasp her now, while she was sinking helpless in a dark gulf; and Dinah felt a deep joy in the first sign that her love was welcomed by the wretched lost one. The light got fainter as they stood, and when at last they sat down on the straw pallet together, their faces had become indistinct.
Not a word was spoken. Dinah waited, hoping for a spontaneous word from Hetty, but she sat in the same dull despair, only clutching the hand that held hers and leaning her cheek against Dinah's. It was the human contact she clung to, but she was not the less sinking into the dark gulf.
Dinah began to doubt whether Hetty was conscious who it was that sat beside her. She thought suffering and fear might have driven the poor sinner out of her mind. But it was borne in upon her, as she afterwards said, that she must not hurry God's work: we are overhasty to speak — as if God did not manifest himself by our silent feeling, and make his love felt through ours. She did not know how long they sat in that way, but it got darker and darker, till there was only a pale patch of light on the opposite wall: all the rest was darkness. But she felt the Divine presence more and more — nay, as if she herself were a part of it, and it was the Divine pity that was beating in her heart and was willing the rescue of this helpless one. At last she was prompted to speak and find out how far Hetty was conscious of the present.
"Hetty," she said gently, "do you know who it is that sits by your side?"
"Yes," Hetty answered slowly, "it's Dinah."
"And do you remember the time when we were at the Hall Farm together, and that night when I told you to be sure and think of me as a friend in trouble?"
"Yes," said Hetty. Then, after a pause, she added, "But you can do nothing for me. You can't make 'em do anything. They'll hang me o' Monday — it's Friday now."
As Hetty said the last words, she clung closer to Dinah, shuddering.
"No, Hetty, I can't save you from that death. But isn't the suffering less hard when you have somebody with you, that feels for you — that you can speak to, and say what's in your heart? . . . Yes, Hetty: you lean on me: you are glad to have me with you."
"You won't leave me, Dinah? You'll keep close to me?"
"No, Hetty, I won't leave you. I'll stay with you to the last . . . .But, Hetty, there is some one else in this cell besides me, some one close to you."
Hetty said, in a frightened whisper, "Who?"
"Some one who has been with you through all your hours of sin and trouble — who has known every thought you have had — has seen where you went, where you lay down and rose up again, and all the deeds you have tried to hide in darkness. And on Monday, when I can't follow you — when my arms can't reach you — when death has parted us — He who is with us now, and knows all, will be with you then. It makes no difference — whether we live or die, we are in the presence of God."
"Oh, Dinah, won't nobody do anything for me? Will they hang me for certain? . . . I wouldn't mind if they'd let me live."